Outside the Asylum
I usually don't respond to other people's essays in my Open Thread, but a recent essay on the front page dovetails nicely with a few things I've been thinking about. So I'm breaking my rule. (Will she regret it? Tune in next week and see!)
Back in the 50's, there was a column in the Ladies' Home Journal called "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" The recurring argument that everybody to the left of Bob Dole has been having since 1992 basically asks that question about the political marriage of the Democratic Party and the left. Should lefties work within the Democratic party? Should they try to reform it? Will the Democratic Party ever change? Or will it stick to its terrible, abusive bad habits? Can this marriage be saved?
The argument has been going on for twenty-five years now, and here's the funny thing about it: its essential points never change. The names change, details of political outcomes and political gossip change as difference characters take the political stage, but the meat of the argument is the same now as it was when Bill Clinton was first running for office. One side says the Democratic party is terrible, supporting abusive, right-wing policies, in thrall to a bunch of billionaire psychopaths, absolutely not on the side of anyone who has assets worth less than 50 million dollars. This side also says that the Democratic party is historically resistant to change, and that every attempt to change it has not only failed, but has failed rather spectacularly. Why do they say that? Well, because after each attempt at change, the same people remain in charge of the Democratic party and America proceeds on the same political path it was on before, going the same direction, farther and farther into authoritarian right-wing corporatism.
The other side says that the doubters and naysayers and Negative Nancies are the problem. If only everybody would get on board behind the current changemakers, maybe their movement would have enough fuel to actually change things. Instead, these malcontents sit on the sidelines, taking potshots at the good people who work within the system to make change, wasting their own votes on third-party candidates. Some have ceased to vote at all, showing their total indifference to the well-being of their fellow man. If only they would vote for the good Democrats, those politicians would succeed and bring their virtue to bear on the American political process, to the great gain of everyone who isn't a billionaire psychopath.
That's the part of their argument that stays the same. The rest of this side's argument varies depending on which politicians they are supporting.
Sometimes they say that the naysayers expect too much; they are "purists" who won't accept that the real world is imperfect, or they are fools who don't understand how correct Otto von Bismarck was when he said "Politics is the art of the possible."
Sometimes they say that the naysayers are cruel and unfair in their judgments of the political leaders trying to change things. They are mean people attacking the kind and the virtuous who have done so much for all of us. They are conspiracy theorists who think that those political leaders might not be sincere.
Sometimes they say that this time the movement for change is real, it really has a chance to succeed, because there is some difference between what's happening now and what has happened repeatedly over the past twenty-five years.
(Just as an aside: It's a little odd to hear liberal reformers, including the late, great Ted Kennedy, quoting Otto von Bismarck, who was a conservative Prussian prince with a penchant for starting ugly wars that expanded German power and arguably led to World War I. It's also a little weird that liberal reformers give the power to define political reality to a rabid anti-socialist who only started a welfare state so that he could prevent socialism from succeeding in Germany. Apparently lefties should all listen to a dead imperialist bastard who was really good at co-optation.)
The most important thing about this argument is that it never changes. The argument itself freeze-dries left-wing political life and seals it neatly in a packet. Someday we will slit the packet open and add water, and then the policies we want will emerge, flowering, from the dust. But not today.
Instead of immediately diving into the argument, and taking a side--which more and more often feels like reciting scripted lines, these days--let's look a little bit at the way each side makes its case. I'll try to come up with names for the two sides that are not perjorative. Let's call one side "The Optimists" and the other side "The Disenchanted."
How do the disenchanted make their case?
They usually rely on a rational analysis of politics and history. (By "rational," I mean the kind of analysis people are taught at university: an argument based on logic and evidence). If you bring them proof that they are misrepresenting the historical record, they will listen, and if enough facts are on your side, they will sometimes change their minds. They talk a lot about power. What is an accurate view of the political systems we inhabit? Who is running those systems? If you want to change those systems, you will have to get power away from those people. How will you do it?
Their immediate aim is to create the most accurate account possible of the politics we inhabit. At their darkest and worst, they accuse others of being idiots.They want their audience to question assumptions and present hypotheses based on facts: to engage in rational analysis alongside the author.
How do the optimists make their case?
They usually rely on faith: faith in political leaders; faith in the American political system; faith in people power and the movements that try to muster it. They talk a lot about character. Are their leaders really bastards or con men, like some of the disenchanted claim? Or are they good people who just need the support of loyal footsoldiers? If people refuse to be loyal footsoldiers in these movements, aren't they really withdrawing their loyalty, not just from politicians, but from the country and its suffering populace--or even the world? Who is sincere? Who is virtuous?
Their immediate aim is to persuade the doubtful to give up their doubts and join them in their faith. At their darkest and worst, they accuse people of being traitors. They want their audience to either become believers, or stop talking.
The recent front-page essay on this subject is from the optimist view, which can be easily demonstrated:
Who should be trusted? Are our leaders sincere?
Like I said, when the disenchanted make their case, they rely greatly on history.
Now, though the words "empirically prove" are used in that sentence, note that the aim is to convince doubters to give up their doubts and believe. The aim is not to get people to form their own hypotheses or question anything, but to assent to the rightness of the optimists' faith in their leaders. And how does the essay conclude?
Remember when I said they either want their audience to become believers, or stop talking? This is the part where the nonbelievers stop talking. The non-believing portion of the audience is being told what it can and cannot say in future arguments. Specifically, it is being told that it cannot use recent political history as evidence. It's like a prophylactic is being placed on the site's discussions.
Now, of course, if it really has been "empirically proved" that 2008 and 2016 are irrelevant to the 2020 electoral process, then any rationalist should welcome moving on from making dead-end arguments. In fact, as I said at the beginning, the most notable thing about the argument between the optimists and the disenchanted is that it never moves on.
So you'd think a rationalist would welcome dead-end arguments being consigned to the trash bin once they've been "empirically proved" to be false. The only question is whether the 2008 and 2016 elections have actually been empirically proved to be fundamentally incomparable to the 2020 election season.
2008 is easier for the author to deal with, because the idea here is that the failure of the Obama movement came about because of Obama's untrustworthy character. The fundamental question about 2008 is: Did he con us? Associated questions are: Was he trustworthy? If so, why not? Were we bad people for following him, or good people? How can we be better people? How can we tell whom to trust? These questions place the 2008 election squarely within the preferred discourse of the optimists: they like to talk about morality, character, and faith.
Therefore, it's unsurprising that the author makes a better case about 2008. He is on his own discursive turf. 2008 did not go as hoped because the electorate trusted an untrustworthy leader. That untrustworthy leader is not like the change agents now, because they don't take money from corporations and he did. Also, he spoke in vague, abstract terms, whereas their speeches are full of policy specifics. In 2008 you placed your faith in the wrong person: now place it in better people.
Now, it's debatable whether Barack Obama's poor moral character, even if he were the biggest schmuck on the planet, was the reason for the failure of the Obama movement. But let's just assume that if Obama had been an upstanding man full of civic virtue, that we would be living in a far better world--perhaps even a world that wasn't dying.
The problem is that one cannot analyze the 2016 election in the same manner. Bernie Sanders did not lose the Democratic primary in 2016 because he lacked moral virtue, or because his people did, or because his people were insufficiently loyal to him, or because "doubters" and negativists poisoned the political soup. Like the Bush "elections" before him, the Sanders "loss" sticks like a fish bone in the throat of customary American character-based political analysis.
Furthermore, this failure clearly cannot be solved by individual morality, or at least not by individual morality alone. This is a problem of power, that can only be solved by taking power away from the wrongdoers and their faction. And it has already been proved that running a good clean populist election is not the way to take power from those people. If it were, we would have had a Sanders vs Trump general election, and we would probably be talking about President Bernie Sanders right now.
We can talk about money in politics. We can talk about politicians' moral characters. We can talk about the difference between focusing on an individual and creating an entire movement with many leaders. We can talk about the moral character of the electorate.
But unless a progressive insurgency can prevent the Clinton faction, the Bush faction, or anybody else from committing successful election fraud, in a country where those who commit election fraud remain unpunished, just as those who commit financial fraud remain unpunished, it will not succeed in even getting its leaders into office, much less getting progressive policies turned into enforceable law. In order to do that, the corrupt must have their power taken from them.
At the root of most of the optimists' arguments lies the assumption that, if only people like me would stop being cynical doubters, if only we had sufficient faith, then virtue would prevail in elections. Power would be taken away from the corrupt via an electoral process, good policies would be instituted, made into law, those laws would be equitably enforced, and we could all get down to the business of trying to make this broken world whole. We just need to put our shoulders to the grindstone beside our fellows and we will, eventually succeed.
That argument sounds great. The only problem is that it has no basis in fact, does not rely upon logic, and ultimately provides a convenient set of scapegoats from the 99% to blame for any failures of that political method. As such, the argument is infinitely renewable, for as long as people want its comforts.